A special kind of applause should be granted to any actor/actress who can take on a role that in some form or another mocks their features, or worse, feeds into the stigmas they get from other people. For example, Camryn Manheim's performance in Happiness where she calls herself “fat” and “ugly” while slurping down ice cream, or Paul Reubens playing the ghost of a pervert in Todd Solondz's most recent film Life During Wartime. Criminally Insane marks the beginning of the short but interesting low-budget career for actress Priscilla Alden. The tagline of the film is “250 pounds of maniacal terror,” and Alden breathes life into the phrase with her pathetic, brutal, and sometimes comic portrayal of Ethel Janowski, also known as “Crazy Fat Ethel.”
Janowski is an obese mental patient with whom you sympathize at first. The film opens with her shock therapy sessions, followed by her glaring at the camera while dressed in a straitjacket. We are then introduced to her grandmother (Jane Lambert), who speaks with her doctors about her progress and the possibility of taking her home. Ethel is released from the asylum and returns to a quiet San Francisco neighborhood with her grandmother. Once settled she dives into a bout of anti-Semitic slurs against her doctor, whom she claims was trying to starve her to death. Simultaneously she begins to stuff her face with a hearty breakfast: a dozen fried eggs, a whole slab of bacon, half a loaf of toasted bread, and milk. The scene is unnerving for two reasons: (1) watching Ethel in a close-up stuffing her face is uncomfortable and purposefully repulsive, and (2) you get the feeling that someone with that kind of insatiable appetite has more in common with a predatory beast than a human being with logical thoughts. There's also discomfort in the dialogue from the grandmother who is passively bullying her while she's eating—reciting the ol' “never too late to watch your figure” line.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Russ Meyer has brought a plethora of tales that feature femme fatales, vixens, and unapologetic ladies, but none are as flawless as Faster, Pussycat! Aside from being ahead of its time by approaching women as forces to be reckoned with—not trampled on—Meyer employed various techniques that were rarely used in low budget film. The frame composition in the action sequences and the superb editing, aided by the use of multiple cameras during a shot, are things that you'd expect to see in a feature with a large budget. This, paired with excellent black & white photography and a thrilling plot, has turned the movie into a classic instead of a cult fad.
The opening sequence pretty much forces you, in a somewhat silly way, to go into the movie expecting to see women who aren't of the norm. A narrator informs the audience that there is a new breed of woman—vicious, unrelenting beasts; animals in a shell of soft skin. The voice-over states that in these “new times,” one can never know what to expect of a woman, and that those who you need to watch out for could be anyone: secretaries, nurses, or even go-go dancers.
Guy Maddin is one of the world's greatest filmmakers. He is an artist with a visual aesthetic and command of cinema surely derived straight from the heavens. His movies explode with fantastic imagery—strange sights that turn his memories and perverted sense of nostalgia into menacing fantasias of great beauty and power. His films always feel like critiques of history and cinema masquerading as tour de force spectacles. For example The Saddest Music in the World works as a critique of the capitalist degradation of art but it also works on such feverish imagery as Isabella Rossellini's strangely beautiful glass legs filled with beer. The plots, such as they are, seem to belong to a different era where "suspension of disbelief" was more bendable than it is now though there's no mistaking Maddin's postmodern sensibility for any time but now. He manages to blend the exclamatory cliches of Russian and German silent film with the camp melodrama of Douglas Sirk, the erotic nightmare quality of primo Noir, and his own offbeat Canadian sense of humor into something totally unique. The only other filmmaker I know of who seems to be a true contemporary of Maddin is David Lynch but even he doesn't seem to be as consistently interesting as Maddin.
With My Winnipeg Maddin turns his usual subtextual critiques of history and memory into the actual theme of the film and so My Winnipeg is different from his other films in that we know what he is trying to accomplish upfront. It's a pseudo documentary and the subject is Winnipeg—Maddin's hometown and the source of most of his artistic fixations. He recreates events from his childhood with his mother (played by Detour actress Ann Savage). He details the nocturnal state that defines life in Winnipeg where sleepwalking is common. He chronicles the alternately traumatic and intoxicating lessons in sexual discovery that he received from hanging around the Catholic girl's school, swimming pools, and hockey rinks of Winnipeg as a youngster.
The Island of Dr. Moreau
In terms of guilty pleasures, John Frankenheimer’s 1996 kinda/sorta adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau may elicit the most guilt but certainly a lot of pleasure. By most standards the film is a complete mess with a legendarily ugly story of getting to the screen. It’s utterly indulgent and over the top, but it also has a giddy grotesqueness that makes it completely entertaining. Like its characters it reeks of madness, in one of those “what were they thinking” kinds of ways. Much more interesting than the ‘70s Burt Lancaster version, this later edition plays like a long, drug-fueled trip you wish would end but that the next day you think back and decide maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.
After surviving a plane crash and now lost at sea, United Nations worker Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) ends washed up on some kind of hidden private island (the kind that may have existed in H.G. Wells’s day). It’s actually an experimental playground for ex-respected superstar mad scientist Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando). He was once on the cover of Newsweek but his crazy ideas had him laughed out of academia. Slowly Edward begins to grasp what is happening here, with the help of his zonked-out, druggy assistant, Montgomery (Val Kilmer). Moreau has been playing with DNA and turning exotic wild animals into half-men, some more successfully than others. His father/god complex has alienated the wilder ones who feel enslaved; they put together a rebellion against their full human captors.
There might never be another movie about a hooker who has a heart. The same goes for stories depicting an under aged girl’s sexual exploits, as in movies like The Lover, Lolita, and Pretty Baby. Aside from being a touchy subject, I doubt filmmakers would want to take the risk. These types of movies rarely end on a good note, and rightfully so. Instead of following minors on the wrong side of the tracks, Hollywood eventually turned the spotlight on adults, as in the movie Pretty Woman. However, Angel has a much better story about a hooker leading a double-life—one that is far more nuanced, even though it isn’t very realistic.
Angel is everything that a B-movie should be and much more. It mashes up genres, as any good cult movie should do. In it Donna Wilkes plays 15-year-old Molly, or Angel if you’re one of the few that have ties to her nighttime activities as a prostitute. But unlike most movies that follow the ladies of the night, this protagonist has a compelling back story. At one point in her young life she lived with her parents. By the time she was 12 they both abandoned her for better lives and new lovers. In order to maintain her sense of security and keep their apartment she took to the streets and started prostituting.
Ronald (Scott Jacoby) is a good boy; he's the most caring and dutiful son a mother could ask for. His mother Elaine (Kim Hunter) is divorced and takes pride in the fact that she dismissed alimony in exchange for the sole custody of her son. She has complications with her gallbladder, and Ronald is quick to come to her side when she's cringing in pain. He's now a senior in high school, and his mother has hopes of him one day becoming a doctor. For his birthday she gives him a tool box and art supplies, the latter he's thrilled about because he wants to illustrate the characters from the stories he likes to write. On the night of his birthday he dresses smart and decides to go ask a girl from school out on a date. His overbearing mother tells him to heed her warnings about the self-centered girl that he's infatuated with before letting him go on his way. He goes to her house and finds her swimming with the kids who bully him at school. He's obviously rejected by the girl and leaves shortly after. While running home he accidentally knocks a little girl off her bike. The girl begins shouting at him and taunting, eventually making claims about Ronald and his mother's weirdness. He demands an apology from her, and when it doesn't surface he shoves the girl to the ground and she dies in a freak accident.
When he comes home hours later with soil on his now-ruined jacked, his mother asks him what's wrong. He confesses that he killed the neighbor girl in an accident and then buried her body in panic. His mother won't hear of him going to jail, so the two work hard through the night creating a secret passage in their Victorian home with the intention of hiding him there until the heat dies down. While inside, Ronald exercises, studies and illustrates his story about a mystical land on the walls. The story has a prince, who finds a princess to fall in love with him, and an evil duke who tries to destroy their happiness.
Apparently there is something timeless about the Oedipus complex, as well as the fear of a catastrophic death. We play with the idea of the world coming to an end and cities crumbling to ruin in almost every action or sci-fi film. The thrill is exhausted, and the same is true of the over-saturated use of Freud. However, with Guy Maddin's Careful I venture to say that one may view a radiant and technically stunning movie about fear itself. The borders we create with other human beings, both relatives and strangers, are shifted in a way that is cult-like, similar to the backwards villages that were the foundation of our society. To add to the old feeling of a place filled with religious fanatics is a looming fear that is as outrageous as it is interesting.
In the town of Tolzbad, we find a group of people who must must never be careless or loud in their activities. In the past, the sound of an animal or a sneeze could potentially cause an avalanche from the mountains nearby. The fear of this tragic death has lead to several procedures and guidelines that should prevent it from ever happening again. Animals have had their vocal cords cut; children are gagged while playing until they are old enough to understand the consequences of their squeals; windows are covered with sheepskin, and all instruments are muffled. On top of the sound restraints are general warnings; never hold a baby by a pin, don't climb the mountains without proper gear, etc. The unison of superstition and nervousness provided more of an insight to a time long gone than the use of technicolor (or hand tinting?) throughout the film, or the silent-era design.Continue Reading
Sins of the Fleshapoids
For those of you who do not know of Mike and George Kuchar, I highly recommend the documentary It Came From Kuchar which gives a thrilling account of their lives as underground filmmakers and artists. For those of you who know about them and are unable to find their work, I suggest looking at the releasing company Other Cinema, and the DVD compilations, Experiments in Terror. The documentary highlights their works, but three films stand out: The Devil's Cleavage, Born of the Wind, and Sins of the Fleshapoids. I was beyond thrilled to discover that some of their films were available for purchase, even if it's a just a few. The Other Cinema release of Fleshapoids also includes The Craven Sluck, and The Secret of Wendel Samson. Shot with consumer grade film with a cast of the director's friends, Fleshapoids is an experience in underground cinema that is not to be missed.
The Kuchars were at the tender age of 23 when they made this film, with Mike behind the camera and George in a starring role. The music assemblage and narration is done by Bob Cowan, and George Kuchar co-wrote the script. It takes place a million years in the future, where humans have enslaved androids with shells of human flesh, using them to do menial tasks and obey their every command. The earth suffered a nuclear war, turning rivers to poison and causing the near-death of all living things. The quest for scientific and mechanical knowledge brought about great turmoil, and now humans only indulge in the fulfillment of the senses. Picture hippies who wear mardi gras beads and fake furs. Their lairs are filled with leopard print, jewels, and bountiful displays of food. They call on the fleshapoids for massages and the ability to have everything done for them.Continue Reading
Everyone told me that by the time I got into the early works of John Waters, I'd be blown away. Starting late in his career held its charm, especially with Cry-Baby and Serial Mom, but knowing that he was heavily inspired by the Kuchar brothers and cast eccentrics as wonderful as Divine did give their argument some weight. Female Trouble has not only become one of my favorite cult classics, but one that has helped me put the glorification of its many themes into perspective. On that level, the movie is way ahead of its time by approaching child abuse, violence, and habitual self-destruction as something inevitable and relevant to movie-goers. When you think about it, those issues are touched upon in the majority of American films, though, in retrospect, filmmakers don't often twist these observations into dark comedy.
Like all of his films, it's set in Baltimore, but stars his cream of the crop, Divine, and the wonderful Edith Massey. It's split into several chapters, the first being an introduction to Dawn Davenport's (Divine) youth in 1960. She and her best friends Chicklette and Concetta rant about how much their high school and parents suck and what they hope to get for Christmas. Dawn is expecting black cha-cha heels and vows to raise hell if her parents don't comply with her wishes. Christmas Day comes and she gets a pair of standard black shoes, causing her to throw her mother into the tree and disown her parents. She runs away and gets knocked up by a guy who picks her up hitchhiking (also played by Divine). With a new baby on her hands and him M.I.A., she begins her career as a stripper, prostitute, and petty thief.Continue Reading
If I had to sum up Cry-Baby in a sentence for someone, I would say that it is the wet dream of John Waters. Not since Kenneth Anger has there ever been someone who plays on the homoeroticism of hairless leather-daddies and rockabilly culture with such style. The movie also has what I would consider to be a dream cast for Waters, with Johnny Depp leading the pack. There's also his late muse, Ricki Lake, and small performances by Iggy Pop, Mink Stole, Joe Dallesandro, and a cameo by Willem Dafoe. To boot, the soundtrack is also outrageously good, featuring some of my favorite doo-wop, rockabilly, and psychobilly songs.
To compare this gem with other greaser vs. socs movies would be placing an emphasis on the more typical parts of the story; a nice town in 1950s suburbia is split in two, with its elite on one side and the trailer-trash on the other. But you have to remember that this is not The Outsiders or Grease, nor a jailhouse/Elvis flick. In fact, it's a parody of such movies. Waters takes the road-rebel genre and turns it into an opportunity to direct an over-the-top musical about teenagers and star-crossed love. The result is a story about a young man named Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker (Johnny Depp), a juvenile delinquent who prides himself on the ability to shed a single tear when confronted by his emotions. Behind him, sporting leather jackets with his name on the back, is his gang, referred to by the town as “drapes.” Perhaps the name comes from the emotional curtain of hair that keeps half of their faces in shadow. There's his plump and pregnant sister, Pepper (Ricki Lake); the fiery Wanda (Traci Lords); and the oddest couple to ever hit the screen, Milton (Darren E. Burrows) and his gal, Hatchet-Face (Kim McGuire). Their rivals on the playground are the suburban “squares,” and like other movies with the same theme, these characters are given little screen time and are presented as the enemy. The starlet among them is Allison (Amy Locane), a blonde who's seen as the most talented and beautiful among the rich. Allison and Cry-Baby lock eyes while getting a polio shot in the gymnasium. The sight of her makes him shed a tear, and the rest is history.Continue Reading